Founding of a Scientific Psychology in Germany

Author:Britt Anderson

1 More than just Wundt

Any date for the founding of experimental psychology will be arbitrary. Selecting 1879 as the founding of the experimental psychology laboratory at Leipzig emphasizes the introduction of experimental tools, procedures, and an emphasis on testable theories to the growing tradition of empirical thinking in mental and moral philosophy. Similarly arbitrary is the anointing of one man as a founder of experimental psychology. By naming Wilhelm Wundt to this role we commemorate the founding of a laboratory psychology, but we also emphasize a man who is known more for bureaucratic success than scientific achievement. Many of the domains of psychology that are dear to modern minds are ones that Wundt closed off as beyond scientific approach. Memory assessments relying on words, poems, or pictures were too contaminated by learned associations to be effective, pure probes of conscious experience. A reliance on reaction time showed the usefulness of new measurement devices, but Wundt was not a keen experimentalist and was not innovative in new tools for measurement or for expanding the domain of psychological study. And as another consequence of his emphasis on a pure, near simultaneous, report of conscious experience the entire domain of thought and reasoning was beyond approach. For the same reason, experimental subjects should be trained in introspection, but not in the content about which they are introspecting, e.g. music. To study musical perception required, according to Wundt, introspectors who were musically naive. Wundt carried strong theoretical prejudices, which often determined his scientific positions more than empirical evidence. Convinced of the primacy of visual experience and images Wundt labeled any evidence at variance with this idea to be axiomatically the product of bad experimental technique.

It is clear then that by elevating Wundt to the role of founder of the field, we are giving priority to one aspect of our science: its development as an experimental discipline; but ignoring many other aspects of its early development as a science. Through the examples of some of Wundt’s contemporaries we can see how early scientific psychology was enriched by additional approaches and different strengths. In this chapter four of these early German contemporaries are highlighted.

1.1 Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) [1]

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Hermann Ebbinghaus can be regarded as a bit of a dreamer. He came to psychology through a meander in the book stalls of Paris, and his methodological insight through the poetry of Alice in Wonderland. He his however a critical and seminal figure. He was one of the first to begin to pry psychology from the conceptual straight-jacket in which Wundt had laced it. It is a common misconception to see Ebbinghaus as a one-hit wonder, but in addition to revolutionizing memory research (and indirectly encouraging psychologists to think more creatively about whether they could study mental phenomena more broadly) he was also a critical early worker in the field of intelligence, spread the necessaries of psychological research by founding three separate university laboratories, and broadened the dissemination of psychological knowledge (especially thinking outside Wundtian boundaries) through the founding of an important experimental psychology journal (that still exists to this day [2] ).

1.1.1 Some Biography [3]

Hermann Ebbinghaus was born in Germany to a wealthy family. His father was a merchant, and Hermann was a good student going on to the Gymnasium (which is the type of secondary school intended for University bound students). He attended three universities: Bonn, Berlin, and Halle. It is regarded as a successful innovation of the German University system that their concept of Wissenschaft put up few barriers to transferring between institutions, and thus students were able to seek out and get the education that best suited them even when that varied over their university careers. The Franco-Prussian war lasted for about one year when Ebbinghaus was 20 and he was a soldier. By 23 he had obtained his PhD in philosophy with a thesis [4] on Hartmann’s philosophy of the unconscious [5] . We can infer that Ebbinghaus was a bit indeterminate about what form his career was to take as he spent the next few years in France and England as a student and a teacher. He is 30 when he returns for his Habilitation in Berlin (essentially a second PhD thesis then required of all academicians in the German speaking system). This research is his Gedachtnis, which is published in 1885. Its importance results in his being appointed a professor. The book is important in two regards: one it provides important objective results on human memory. Perhaps more importantly, it provides an example of how a domain of human psychology formally thought to be impossible to rigorously investigate could in fact be pursued by investigative creativity. From Berlin to Breslau to Halle Ebbinghaus developed psychological laboratories at three different universities. He died, relatively young (59), of pneumonia.

1.1.2 Scientific Highlights

Ebbinghaus viewed Gustav Fechner as his inspiration, and dedicated his Gedachtnis to him (“Ich hab’ es nur von Euch.”). The story told in Ebbinghaus’s obituary is that his familiarity with Fechner was due to a chance finding of Fechner’s Psychophysics; the discovery the chance result of a stroll on along the second hand book stalls that then lined the Seine in Paris. Ebbinghaus’s own take on the history of psychology (and the source of his famous line that a long past and a short history can be found in the introduction to his Abriss der Psychologie [6] .

One of the challenges that was thought to face memory work in an era when a scientific method for psychology was preoccupied with pure introspections of conscious experience was how to disentangle memory per se from all the contaminating associations that decorate every term and every image with which we are familiar. These are various and would work to make any conventional memory assessment hopelessly confounded by unique, and unknowable, individual experiences. Ebbinghaus however hit upon the idea of using nonsense, pronounceable syllables. These, presumably unique in the subject’s experience, would be clean and would permit memory to be measured without contamination. Exactly how Ebbinghaus came up with this idea is uncertain, but much lore explains it by his exposure to English, where he would have been confronted with sound strings that were to him unfamiliar, but necessary to memorize. Perhaps to it was the poetry of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky [7] that inspired him with its meaningless neologisms [8] or even the occult expletives of London and Parisian coachmen and cabbies [3] .

A Short Video on the Memory Research Methods of Hermann Ebbinghaus

Using himself as the sole research subject Ebbinghaus established the core features of human memory. He noted the effects of primacy and recency. The exponential decay of the forgetting curve is in his work, as his the highly creative methodology that permitted him to measures savings scores. An English translation of his magnum opus can be found here. But in addition to its direct data, this work was important to the young science for its impact on other practitioners interested in other areas. It showed how one could approach these off-limit domains. To quote Titchener: “It is not too much to say that the recourse to nonsense syllables, as a means to the study of association, marks the most considerable advance, in this chapter of psychology, since the time of Aristotle.”

While known for his memory work, a less appreciated contribution of Ebbinghaus was his development of an early intelligence test that was directly influential on other later intelligence psychologists.

1.2 Carl Stumpf (1848 - 1936)

1.2.2 Biographical and Career Highlights

Carl Stumpf [9] is evidence that all early scientiific psychology did not descend from Wundt. Stumpf himself did not train under Wundt, and in fact was engaged in bitter disputes with Wundt regarding the proper methods for psychological research on music. He was also important for the movement that came to eclipse Wundt’s Voluntarism, Gestaltism. Two of Gestalt Psychology’s founders, Koffka and Köhler, spent part of the careers with Stumpf.

Stump was born in Germany, before it was Germany [10] in Barvaria a region that contains Würzburg where he would work for a period, and where Külpe would also Chair. Stumpf’s family was cultured and upper middle class. His father was a physician, and two uncles were scientists. The house was musical, and Stumpf had obvious talents that were apparent at an early age. He could play the violin at 7, and it is said that he composed his first oratorio, a piece for three male voices, when he was only ten. His mastering of the violin was followed up by learning to play several other musical instruments. Stumpf’s psychological training took place in Würzburg under Brentano (known for his Act Psychology), and at Göttingen where, following Brentano’s advice, he continued his psychological studies with Lötze. His disertation was on the philosophical side of psychology: The Relationship Between Plato’s God and His Idea of Goodness, which reflected his supervisors’ approach to psychology. There is some idea that he thought about becoming a priest, but during the debate over papal infallability he decided not to pursue clerical training, but rather psychology. In addition to his training he had other exposures to the discipline that may have contributed to this choice. His family knew both Fechner and Weber and the story is that Weber even measured two-point discrimination on Stumpf in the parlor of his brother’s house. His work on space perception begain in the early 1870s, before the official, post-hoc, founding of experimental psychology (and showing that this idea of a founding year is quite arbitrary).

Stumpf’s controversy with Wundt had to do with the method of introspection and the proper subjects for this research. Recall that much of the work at this early stage was devoted to the conscious experience of physical, sensory stimuli. The participants, or subjects, of research at this time were expected to be expert in introspection so that they could give reproducible and reliable accounts of their conscious experience, e.g. by avoiding the stimulus error. Another pre-occupation was to avoid the reporting of learned associations; the report of the conscious apperception was to be primal and learned. Who then would make the best subjects for this research? Would it be those naive to music, its structure, its vocabulary, and learned associations? Or should it be those with muscial capacities who would possess an appreciation of the subtle characteristics of music and have the right terms to express their experiences, but whose reports might also be contaminated by the associations learned during the development of their skills? Take a moment to think which of these two eminent psychologists would have come down on which side of this debate, and then read some of their nasty to and fro [11] [12] .

Mach and Stumpf sat down together before a harmonium,
in the physical laboratory at Prague, to decide the question
whether attention to one of the component tones of an
ordinary musical chord does or does not strengthen that
particular tone. Mach declared that the intensification
was quite clear; Stumpf could find no trace of intensive
change. ...
What is the value of a method which lands us in
difficulties of this sort?
-- E.B. Titchener  [12]_

Stumpf’s legacy is probably greater than Wundt’s today with a renewed interest in his thoughts and writings. Perhaps this could have been forseen as William James is said to have fancied Stumpf of all the German psychologists he met during his European visits.

1.3 Georg Müller (1850 - 1934)

– To Do – Müller Biography

  • Born in Grimma (near Leipzig). Father was a parson.
  • Higher education in Berlin, Leipzig, Göttingen.
  • Did his time in the Franco-Prussian War.
  • Influence by Lötze in Göttingen and Fechner in Leipzig.
  • Landed an instructor’s position at Göttingen and spent the next 40 years there.
  • In 1887, two years after Ebbinghaus’s work on memory published, Göttingen group begins mopping up.
  • The heir to Fechner in psychophysics. He dropped all the panpsychism and presented it as the first real effort to establish quantitative laws in the mental realm.

Müller’s Three Keys to a Successful Academic Career

  1. Be appointed a professor at a young age (31).
  2. Marry an intelligent woman.
  3. Have poor health and a temperament that precludes overconfidence.

from Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology by Gregory A. Kimble.

Müller Biography

Was a literary kid, reading Goethe, Byron. Note that he was another example of these students who attended university in multiple cities. Lötze is mentioned on page 49 of the Blue book. More in the mode of the philosopher-psychologist than the scientist-psychologist. Müller was a very proper prussian; he demanded order and precision. This was the reason that his first teaching position in the Austrian hinterlands was so unpalatable. It is easy to draw a connection to his success as a methodologist and this aspect of his temperament. Sent critiques of their ideas to both Lötze and Fechner, which they received well; a tribute to both them and the thinking of Müller. In fact, his critique of Fechner led to Fechner publishing a revision of his work.

Müller’s Contributions

  • Technical refinement of Ebb’s methods: e.g. drew consonants and vowels at random, presented stimuli with a memory drum.
  • Through his use of introspection during memory tasks he discovered the phenomenon of “chunking”
  • Studied interference effects, visual perception, colour theory.
  • Co-discoverer of Jost’s law.
  • The methodological conscience of German Psychology.

Müller’s Contributions Jost’s Law: If two associations are of equal strenth, then repetition strengthens the older more than the younger.

Tribute to Müller “What assured the far-reaching results of his
scientific research was to a great extent his exemplary scientific
methodological stance. It is characterized by ... rigor and simplicity,
its cleanness and reliability and likewise limitation inn its
interpretation of the results obtained (Hische, 1935, p 146)” --- quoted
from Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, by Gregory A. Kimble.

Müller Comments Insisted on being a subject in every new paradigm. Went to lectures in other faculties, including physical chemistry by Nernst.

2 Early Psychological Laboratories

  • Cattell’s report in Mind 1888 (pdf)
  • Cattell’s report in Science

2.1 Oswald Külpe


The methodology of early psychology was restricted to a few basic procedures. Reaction time and psychophysical methods were standard, but the main probe for a science of consciousness and the mental was introspection. It was the subjective, personal, data that was to be explained, and there seemed little way to probe this experience without a participant’s direct report. Early scientific psychologists were not ignorant of the problems this posed for research to be scientific, that is repeatable and consistent. For Wundt introspection was very constricted. There was to be an immediate report of the content of consciousness, not an interpretation, but the raw content. Such a practice constrained the reach of scientific psychology. Thinking and reasoning for example would not be amenable to such a narrow admission of introspective data.

2.1.1 Is there only one kind of introspection?

Different terms were used by the early German scientific psychologists for introspection: Selbstbeobachtung and innere Wahrnemung. In the former there is a sense of observation, and in the latter perception. For Wundt, all mental events were compounds, and it was through a careful observation that science could be done by observing the individual components of experience. For Oswald Külpe introspection had broader application, and inner perception could be employed to gain insight into psychological processes and operations.

Oswald Külpe

Oswald Külpe: Science was his bride.

2.1.2 Biography

Külpe was born in the Baltic area to a German family. His father was a notary (like a lawyer) and he attended the gymnasium. He had two unmarried cousins who lived in Leipzig and who were major influences on young Oswald. As Külpe never married the motto associated with him was that “Science was his bride.” He started out teaching history and went to Leipzig to study history in 1881 only two years after the formal founding of Wundt’s laboratory. Külpe took some courses from Wundt and benefited from the Wissenschaft character of German Universities by transferring to Berlin for additional study. Subsequently, he went to Göttingen and there he met Georg Elias Müller who expanded the instrumentation and technical rigor of psychological research, and who followed up many of the seminal memory studies of Ebbinghaus. Külpe went to Russia to earn a teaching certificate, but rather than work in education he returned to Leipzig and earned a PhD (Theory of Sensual Feeling [13] ) and Habilitation with Wundt.

Külpe continued to work with Wundt becoming his laboratory assistant, then a privat dozent [14] . In 1894 he became an extraordinary professor, which is actually less impressive than being an ordinary professor. Called to Würzburg in 1896 he founded the psychology laboratory there and remained for fifteen years before moving to Bonn where he founded another new psychology laboratory. Four years later he moved to Münich, again to found a new psychology laboratory. WWI and the world’s response to Germany deeply affected him (as it did many other German psychologists) who felt patriotic and that Germany had been misunderstood. He contracted influenza in 1915 and as a possible complication developed a purulent infection of the heart muscle from which he died [15] .

2.1.3 The Würzburg School

Külpe’s enduring reputation comes from his association with the Würzburg school. The laboratory there represented a counterweight to Wundt’s narrow interpretation of the permissible use of introspection in psychological research, and also represented a significant challenge to Wundt’s scientific theory of the mental. For Wundt consciousness was an amalgam of sensation, feeling, and image. The group at Würzburg challenged this idea, putting particular pressure on the necessity of the image. In a series of experiments highlighting what today we could call mental set they demonstrated that task instructions could affect perceptual and conscious experience without any concomitant imagery. Conscious experience was characterized, by Wundt and similar thinkers, as having only duration, intensity, quality, and extensity (a spatial character). Thought content did not have these characteristics and was a suspect conscious element. Further, Wundtians felt that the introspective procedures of Külpe and collaborators was describing what had happened instead of the happening itself. A relatively contemporary discussion of this controversy of “imageless thought” can be found in Ogden, 1911 (pdf), and a later discussion by Boring (pdf). A more modern and full discussion of the school from Würzburg (Hoffman) is available.

2.1.4 Contributions

Külpe’s contributions are several. He was interested in, and made more respectable, the scientific investigation of “higher” order processes including the use of introspection to probe such entities as thinking - though he was perhaps not as involved in this as posterity emphasizes. He founded and equipped three labs in Germany, was widely regarded as one of the “nice guys” of the profession, and if he had not died relatively young, might have had a much larger influence on the course of the field. Given his character and his interests he could be regarded as a forerunner of a Cognitive Psychology, and he certainly was a direct influence on the psychologists who would go on to do seminal work in Gestalt psychology (Koffka and Werthemier) and Intelligence (Spearman).

[1]Hermann Ebbinghaus photo credit.
[2]The journals home page is: and an editorial with some history and some discussion of the name change can be found here: .
[3](1, 2) Much good biographical material can be found in Ebbinghaus’s obituary in the American Journal of Psychology.
[4]The thesis is available on line as a free book.
[5]This book was only recently published: An English translation is available [[]. According to the foreword by the translator the book was published in 1868 by the then 27 year old philosopher.
[7]A portion of Lewis Carrol’s Jabberwocky from Alice Through the Looking Glass. :: Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.
[8]Ebbinghaus may not have been the only early psychologist inspired by poetry as a method for studying memory. See also
[9]For more detail there is an excellent article in the Stanford Encyclopedia on Stumpf.
[11]Stumps’ closing words to Wundt and Wundt’s rejoinder (easy to get the last word in when you have your own journal, and a pretty clear reason why you need more than one scientific psychology journal - Thank you Ebbinghaus.)
[12]Page 436 of
[13]Link to the thesis [German]
[15]Additional biographical and other material can be found in this article from the American Journal of Psychology, 1951.